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Onyx reviews: Wake of the Perdido Star by Gene Hackman & Daniel Lenihan

Actor Gene Hackman and his neighbor, underwater archaeologist Daniel Lenihan, have written "a novel of shipwrecks, pirates and the sea." Unlike many novels that have the names of celebrities attached to them, this book is not the work of ghostwriters. What is found on these pages, warts and all, is their own words.

The story starts in Salem, Massachusetts in 1805. Jack O'Reilly and his parents board the sea-worn ship Perdido Star, bound for Cuba. A series of personal misfortunes has driven the O'Reilly family back to Jack's mother's native land to reclaim her legacy and start a new life. Shortly after they arrive, an act of treachery forces Jack to take refuge back on the Perdido Star, barely escaping with his life. His parents are not so fortunate. Jack vows to himself that he will return to Cuba and avenge his parents, reclaiming his birthright.

The Perdido sets out south, bound for O'taheiti in the Pacific. Her motley crew is led by a delusion captain. If not for the skill of the first mate, Quince, the ship and crew would have perished on the harrowing trek around Cape Horn. Their good fortune does not last, however. The Perdido sinks on a reef in a storm near the east Pacific island of Belaur.

The survivors are stranded on Belaur for over a year, earning the trust of the natives of the region. While salvaging valuables from the Perdido, the crewmen invent an early form of deep diving, using makeshift diving bells as an underwater air supply to extend their bottom time. Diving is one of Lenihan's fields of expertise, and the evolution of their primitive techniques, along with the unexpected and unexplained side effects (air embolisms and the bends, for example) is described in intricate detail.

After a year and a half, the crew escape the island on a hybrid craft of their own devising and complete the circumnavigation of the globe that brings Jack to his destiny in Cuba. Along the way, the legend of Black Jack O'Reilly, fearsome pirate, spreads, much to his chagrin. The boy has matured from the raw youth who first boarded the Perdido, and the legend is useful during confrontations with aggressive trading ships.

While the linear plot hints at an exciting adventure, reminiscent of Treasure Island or Moby Dick, the reality is that Wake of the Perdido Star has its moments, but is, at best, a moderately good first effort by a pair of aspiring writers. There are some memorable characters in the novel, but they lack much depth and are mostly caricatures. One of the book's less trustworthy characters, for example, is transparently named Cheatum. Crewmen are invented on the spot for the sole purpose of being dispatched a few paragraphs later. Character motivation is difficult to understand. Jack's single-minded determination to avenge his parents is classical, but his dogged fidelity to a woman whom he met on the street the day he boarded the Perdido is mystifying.

Unimportant events are sometimes described in excessive detail while some of the more crucial confrontations and crises are rushed out in vague and often confusing passages. The dialog alternates between period diction and contemporary idiom, sometimes within a single conversation. It's not clear to what degree these inconsistencies are the result of differing styles of the two authors.

It is comforting to know that the two authors have not quit their day jobs.

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